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The Future Imperfect

I am waiting out a spring storm, pulled over to the side of the highway in my old Volvo, sending an email to one friend while calling another to tell him I’ll be late. The audiobook version of Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Searched is playing on my Kindle, which I’ve hooked into the car stereo. As I sit here, surrounded by technologies that did not exist when I was born—cell phones, e-readers, email—it’s impossible not to notice that I’m living in a world that contains more technological wonders than McCaffrey had imagined. The protagonists in the story would have been much helped, for instance, by a secure communications channel and a GPS system, both of which I have in my battered old car. But most of all, the heroine of this book would have been helped by a future shaped by the actions of today’s disability activists. Because, at its heart, this series of books tells the story of the enslavement of extremely promising children who have the bad luck to be born—or in this one case alone, become—disabled.

The basic plot device behind these stories is horrific enough that I can’t paraphrase McCaffrey’s own words without coloring them, so I will let her speak for herself. The first book in the series, The Ship Who Sang, begins:

She was born a thing and as such would have been condemned if she failed to pass the encephalograph test required of all newborn babies. There was always the possibility that though the limbs were twisted, the mind was not; that although the ears would hear only dimly, the eyes see vaguely, the mind behind them was receptive and alert.
The electro-encephalogram was entirely favorable, unexpectedly so, and the news was brought to the waiting, grieving parents. There was a final, harsh decision; to give their child euthanasia or to permit it to become an encapsulated ‘brain…’ (The Ship Who Sang)

In this series, those children who are deemed worthy are turned into productized, commodified “shell people;” brains who manage the complex tasks associated with running hospitals, space stations, and even piloting starships. They can, if they are lucky, eventually earn enough to buy their own freedom but, until they do, their “bodies” are owned by the company which funded their development and implantation.

In other words, in McCaffrey’s world, disability is so depersonalizing that the very promising are rewarded with slavery and disembodiment; those who don’t pass the test for these rewards are put to death.

The friend I am going to visit is named Larry. If I ever get out of this storm, I should arrive shortly after his nighttime aide has wheeled him into his bedroom and, using an elaborate webbed harness that attaches to an electric lift, helped him get from chair to bed. She’ll lay out the things he needs for the night: two telephone handsets, in case one goes dead, a bottle of water, the book he’s reading, the TV remote, and an emergency call button that will summon an ambulance. I have just enough time to hear the entire book read, and if I listen to it the whole way I will have worked myself up into a heady righteous indignation by the time I go to sit by his bedside and have an evening drink. He’ll try to calm me down; Larry doesn’t have my stomach for political debate. He’ll tell me that it’s only a story. I will tell him the stories we tell about our futures become our futures, point out that my phone looks a lot like an old Star Trek communicator, point out that the special mattress he sleeps on was developed by the space program. Over very old Scotch, we’ll agree to disagree.

A truck screamed by, the brakes on fire, just a few seconds ago and now it sits jackknifed across the highway several yards away. Hailstones hit the car so hard that, in a few places, they scratch the paint. What would it be like if that hard, metal shell were my body? And what if I did not own that body, could not decide where it went or what it did?

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1 Ray Busler { 06.02.10 at 6:35 pm }

So many of the characters in Heinlein’s works had disabilities that future science made almost as irrelevant as freckles. I have some faith that our future science will operate in the manner Heinlein envisioned. Where my faith fails me is in my ability to forsee a world as accepting as those he constructed. Science has not built an artificial device that corrects intolerance, indifference or bigotry. Maybe we need pacemakers for the soul.

2 Redstone Science Fiction #1, June 2010 | Redstone Science Fiction { 06.06.10 at 7:20 pm }

[...] The Future Imperfect by Sarah [...]

3 Tech, design, and society { 06.08.10 at 5:40 pm }

[...] 8, 2010 Sarah Einstein writes Disability is created by the ways in which we live. I couldn’t carry two five gallon buckets of [...]

4 dwg { 06.09.10 at 4:35 pm }

It’s sadly rare to find someone who shares my opinion of the Ship books. Too often the disability aspects and slavery are overlooked for the ‘this is cool’ factor. And ‘this is cool’ is something to beware of in responding to Sarah’s idea. As disabled people we don’t just need cool technology to be equal, we need a true change in the way that people regard disability.

As a disability activist I talk about ‘models’ a lot, where a model is the way that someone responds to impairment. Doctors tend to see us as broken, something to be fixed, often without regard to what we really want, that’s the Medical Model. The public mostly see us through the Personal Tragedy Model, which pities and demeans us as the able man’s burden. For many of us the model we chose is the Social Model, which defines disability as the discrimination we experience as the result of our impairment, whether that discrimination be the absence of an access ramp, or someone patting us on the head while prattling about how brave we are.

But even in a utopia fully enabled by the principles of the Social Model, disability will still have an impact. Being disabled takes time and saps energy, for many of us fatigue and pain are the major disabling impacts of our impairment. An accessible world may still be one beyond our ability to access.

5 Melissa Mead { 06.09.10 at 6:52 pm }

This is fascinating. If the world is totally accessible, does disability even exist? Personally, i don’t feel disabled until my lift breaks down, etc.

6 Melissa Mead { 06.09.10 at 6:54 pm }

Are multiple submissions allowed?

7 Bob Williams-Findlay { 06.10.10 at 2:26 pm }

The concept is flawed because in an “accessible world” access would even be a consideration. Access exists as an issue because people who have impairments are “other” – their non-comformity being the lack of ‘normality’ and their exploitative value. The discrimination isn’t the result of our impairments, it is the result of how a given society relates to those with impairments. Under these conditions, what events – political, social and economic – would need to take place to transform a disablist world into an inclusive one? Remember ‘disability’ within the social model refers to oppressive social relations within the structures, systems and cultures of specific societies.

8 Sarah Einatein { 06.10.10 at 4:37 pm }


I’m not sure where we are disconnecting, because I whole-heartedly agree with you. The challenge is not to write a story in which ableism has magically become kittens and rainbows. It is to imagine that this single dimension of compulsory able-bodiness has been addressed. We talk about wanting U.D.–so, okay, what if we got it? Science Fiction let’s us dream of new ways of living and then examine those dreams for their many possible outcomes.

9 Melissa Mead { 06.10.10 at 7:58 pm }

I’m surprised no one’s mentioned Lois McMaster Bujold as an example.

10 Melissa Mead { 06.10.10 at 8:51 pm }

Let me see if I understand: You’re looking for a story in which the Who, What, Where and How seem perfectly ordinary to the characters, disabled and non, but in the back of the reader’s brain something will say “This couldn’t happen Here and Now, because of the meanings disability has in our world.”

Is that it?

11 Sarah Einstein { 06.10.10 at 9:03 pm }

I am afraid I make things more confusing when I try to claify them! The call, which was written by the editors, explains it far better than I can. I feel strongly that any more direction would rob us of the chance to see brilliant and surprising work.

12 Bob Williams-Findlay { 06.10.10 at 9:48 pm }

I don’t think it is about us “disconnecting”, Sarah. The issue is mindset – not as individuals but as societies. Accessibility surely is about what needs to be – the steps required to be inclusive, accepting and dynamic. If the social environment became inclusive and accepting, then I would argue “access” would cease to be an issue because disability as opposed to impairment would not be socially tolerated – a reverse of the current socio-political discourse.

There are cultural issues around impairment/disability e.g. in the UK, impairment is the body’s state of being and disability is the experience of negative social interactions.

13 Barb Caffrey { 06.11.10 at 2:02 am }

I’m with Melissa Mead; Lois McMaster Bujold has to come into this conversation _somehow_, at least with regard to her characters Miles Naismith Vorkosigan and Mark Pierre Vorkosigan. Granted, they take their disabilities/limitations in stride but their society doesn’t — the interplay/juxtaposition of these things helps drives the stories “Komarr,” “Mirror Dance,” “A Civil Campaign,” “The Vor Game,” and most especially “The Warrior’s Apprentice.” But they do not let their limitations stop them in any way, shape or form.

If you’re looking for more than that — and it sounds like you are — I’m not sure in what way that could be handled.

14 Melissa Mead { 06.11.10 at 5:21 am }

And “Falling Free.”

(Can you tell I’m a LMMB fan? ;))

15 Barb Caffrey { 06.11.10 at 5:53 pm }

Same here. And Eric Flint. And KD Wentworth. “The Course of Empire” was excellent, and “The Crucible of Empire” was nearly as good.

16 Melissa Mead { 06.11.10 at 8:22 pm }

I’ve read 1632, but not those. I’ll have to check them out. Thanks for the mention!

17 The Unicorn { 06.12.10 at 1:19 pm }

I’ll note that in the ‘brains’ in the ‘Ship who sang’ aren’t merely disabled but require at least some life support equipment to survive and today when a baby is born which will need to be connected to life support equipment for the rest of it’s life to survive it is often not connected. This is not (legally speaking) euthanasia but the end result is the same, so the situation in Mccafrey’s books is already better than it is in real life.

18 Sarah Einstein { 06.12.10 at 1:37 pm }


I’d be interested on your take on these issues as they are problematized in The Ship Who Searched. The young woman in question is older, is being saved only from paralysis and not death, and there is a “twist” at the end which, I think, changes everything. In order to avoid a spoiler, I’ll just ask if you have read this to the end and discovered the “new option” for brainships, and if so, how do you feel about the fact that this option would only be available to those shell people who made a lot of money and earned it?

This is what I love about scifi… it lets us consider ethical and social questions in the abstract and without the constraints of what we really “can” or “can’t” do.

19 The Unicorn { 06.14.10 at 11:51 am }

I believe I’ve read all the books in the ‘Brainship’ series. As to how I feel about the new option only being available to those with a lot of money – about the same way I feel about how in real life there are a bunch of very expensive, not covered by insurance treatments that can save lives, or help thousands live something closer to normal. In ‘The ship who searched’ the option was just invented, the heroine was in fact the test case which proved it could actually work, and at that point cost more than most people make in their life and while it’s unfortunate if the choice is solve one person’s quality of life issue, or save 100 lives then in my opinion the correct answer is to tell that person ‘sorry, you’ll have to find the money for this on your own’. (Note that’s quality of life vs. life. If it’s life vs. life the question becomes a lot more stickier because to quote Heinlein “Lives are not integers, they’re infinities”)

If you want a problematic issue in the ‘ship who searched’ is that the shellperson project is the only place where they can fit a person with direct neural hookups because while being confined to a wheelchair with life support systems would be incredibly unpleasant to say the least, being able to control the wheel chair and the robotic arms it had in the book with a thought would go far to make it more bearable – and that, unlike the option revealsed at the end is something that could have and should have been offered to the heroine, and anyone else in a similar situation, even if they did not have the special whatever that allowed the Heroine to become a shell person as old as she was.

One more thing – trying to fit the rules mentioned in any two of the Brainship books into a single framework is IMO impossible.

20 Deaf Village { 06.15.10 at 2:40 pm }

[...] This essay by Sarah Einstein discusses the use of disability in science fiction. She writes that disability in science fiction is almost always used as a metaphor, symbolic of something about the character or their circumstances. As she writes, “This is not the sort of future disability advocates envision [...] We envision a future in which disability—like race, gender, ethnicity, and other identity axes—may inform, but certainly not define, who a person is.” [...]

21 dwg { 06.16.10 at 4:52 am }

Unicorn suggests that the shellpeople need life-support, yet in ‘The Ship Who Sang’, Helva, the archetypal shell person, is described as spending three months ‘enjoying the usual routine of the infant’ with no implication that she needed any medical intervention. It seems clear that the need for life-support is a consequence of their implantation in the shell, another facet of their slavery (and one with a 5% death rate), rather than a disability or medical condition.

Unicorn also says “being confined to a wheelchair with life support systems would be incredibly unpleasant”, which completely fails to understand that wheelchairs are incredibly liberating. They suggest that the shell is a better option, but which part of being boxed away and walled up in the attic is better than applying the same enabling technologies to a wheelchair? The walling away is a literary device, not a necessary consequence of the technology, but ironically reflects the very real walling away of disabled people at the time the original Helva stories were written.

As to whether it is acceptable to make the availability of enabling technology dependent on personal finances — not in any future I want to live in!

22 dwg { 06.16.10 at 4:58 am }

Oh, and I’ve written a blog posting to expand Sarah’s discussion of the accessibility side of the equation with the social side of things. See http://dwgism.livejournal.com/1731.html

23 The Unicorn { 06.16.10 at 12:00 pm }

dwg, seems to have missed my point about the wheelchair – that’s understandable as I was trying to avoid spoilers. If you have not read ‘The ship who Searched’ and wish to avoid spoilers stop reading now (and go read The Ship who Searched).

At the end of ‘The Ship who Searched’ Hypathia has gotten a robotic body with all five senses working. In the scene I was referring to in my previous post she is paraplegic with nofeeling, much less control below her neck confined to a motorised chair which she was forced to control by voice command, (which were not very vlexibile). My point was that they could have provided her with a direct neural link to the chair and the robotic arms and sensors, which while far inferior to the prosthetic limbs and later body that was developed in the course of the book would still be far superior to the situation she was in (the justification in the book is that no one outside of the shellperson program can perform the procedure) potentially allowing her to feel when she’s hugged and hug someone back (with that person feeling something other than machinery) But however libirating wheelchairs are if you are paralysed I don’t think anyone will argue that being paralysed in a wheelchair is preferable to being completely healthy.

As far as Helva ‘enjoying the routine of an infant’ the sentence starts with “For her first three vegetable months…” As there is no description of the “special nursry” we do not know how much or how little life support equipment she was connected to during those months but that line does not suggest to me there was nothing.

As for unlimited medical service, while it would be nice if the resources were available to help everyone regaurdless of the cost the unfortunate fact is that both in real life, and in most realistic futures resources are finite. When the cost of solving one person’s quality of life issue is enough to build an entire new hospital I do not believe you are justified in demanding the tax payers pay for it. Oncet5he cost drops down then having the taxpayers fund the operation could be reasonable.

24 Erin Hoffman { 06.21.10 at 4:06 pm }

This essay and the discussion in comments are very interesting and make me think I need to re-read the Brainship stories. It’s funny, because when I read the headline here, and about the contest elsewhere, my immediate thought was, “huh, I wonder if they’ve read the Brainship books?” — as a positive contemplation, not a negative one. The impression that I distinctly have from when I was younger more closely matches Unicorn’s, and the perceptions others above have mentioned — that more than being a discussion of disability, the societal message in the books had to do with socioeconomic separation, class differences — which are accentuated elsewhere in the books beyond Hypatia’s condition.

I also wonder about the flip side of this, and if, also re the Heinlein reference above, SF does not typically deal with disability specifically because it is assumed to be overcome and no longer exist. In Star Wars, Darth Vader’s life support body is not so much as a result of his mind falling to the dark side but as a catastrophic consequence of his inability to overcome his own soul-deep damage which then becomes physically manifest. Luke Skywalker could also be termed “disabled” because of his missing hand, but because of technology his disability is invisible, and because his mind and soul are undamaged he is not portrayed as being punished with it.

And speaking as a person who freaks out her friends by expressing desires to become one with the machine, I’m interested in the aspirational elements of machine life in the future… because as a teenager when I read the ship books I wanted to be Hypatia, ‘challenges’ and all. And perhaps this is the “cool” factor Sarah mentions above, but I also think that there is a technological recapitulation of disability going on in some SF — namely, that Hypatia doesn’t just “overcome” disability, she is a unique new kind of human that had its origins in disability, but because of technology she is in fact more capable than a “meat” human born with full faculties. This is the posthuman future, the furthest extents of which imply people might eventually become deliberately “disabled” in today’s terms in order to have access to a full mind engagement with technology (which is stronger than our physical bodies) that is impossible now. All of these sort of blur the issue and make the subject of what “disability” means in the future (and what our future visions can relevantly say about today’s disability) hard to pin down.

All this said, again the discussion is interesting, and I quite look forward to the story Sarah selects.

25 Sarah Einstein { 06.21.10 at 4:13 pm }


You make many interesting points. I wonder if your reading of the books would be different now, though, than when you first read them? For instance, I remember reading them as a child and giving no thought at all (until I got to “The Ship Who Searched” and then only briefly) to the way in which this disembodiment impacted sexuality. As an adult, that question is of significantly greater import to me than it was during that early reading. Also, the question of bodily ownership was not as clearly fraught for me then; but now that I have greater knowledge of history and enslavement, well… I think the choice between euthanasia and slavery is a very poor choice indeed!

I hope you enter the contest; I am sure your unique take on these things could make for a very interesting story and I’d be interested to see how reconsidering these questions changed your understanding of disability in the future.

26 August Deadlines « Roxie's Blog { 06.22.10 at 7:24 am }

[...] for  “submissions that incorporate the values discussed in the essay The Future Imperfect by Sarah [...]

27 Tuesday’s Treats: Writing Opportunities « Roxie's Blog { 06.22.10 at 7:30 am }

[...] for  “submissions that incorporate the values discussed in the essay The Future Imperfect by Sarah [...]

28 Tuesday’s Opportunities: Romance, Multicultural, Future, Illustrations, & More « Roxie's Blog { 07.13.10 at 3:39 pm }

[...] for  “submissions that incorporate the values discussed in the essay The Future Imperfect by Sarah [...]

29 Links of Great Interest: I got your pun right here. | The Hathor Legacy { 07.23.10 at 2:29 am }

[...] Some thoughts on the Ship Who Sang series. [...]

30 laloca { 07.23.10 at 6:27 am }

if I listen to it the whole way I will have worked myself up into a heady righteous indignation

indignation about what, exactly? the dystopian future described in the series? or the fact that mccaffrey wrote the books that way?

if it’s the former, i can understand the debate. if it’s the latter, i’m afraid you’ve lost me. indignation at where an author’s imagination takes her – or that she’s had the temerity to write something you find politically incorrect – is silly. if her subject matter so offends you, don’t read it.

31 Sarah Einstein { 07.23.10 at 8:05 am }


It is, of course, the nature of literary criticism to read works and to comment on them. Sometimes those comments are negative, sometimes they are positive. It is part of the conversation that all works of literature begin. These conversations are, it can be argued, the entire point of literature.

So yes, it is the dystopian future described that makes me indignate. Like most voracious readers, I lose myself in the world of whatever book I am engaged in at the moment, and can feel the same anger at injustices in that world as in our own. For all I know, McCaffrey wants the reader to experience this indignation… she may have intentionally created the shell people as slaves to a corporation to point out any number of dangers facing our own culture. I may be responding exactly as she wants me to respond.

At the very least, I am engaging her work on the level of the work–you’ll notice I don’t attack the author, only the work–and that’s what literary critics do.


32 EJ { 07.25.10 at 9:21 pm }

A quick reminder that this is the work of Anne McCaffrey. If you are over twelve (maybe fourteen if you are a slow developer), you probably should be reading something written for adults, by adults.

But never let’s mind the lack of sophistication, let’s talk about her politics. She’s not a socially evolved thinker, Ms. McCaffrey. She’s got that sense of her own superiority that would do any libertarian proud. Oh yeah, she’s entitled, but those she considers beneath her are not. In her dragon books, she flushes any feminist notions right down the crapper and if you’ve read any interviews with her, you’ll see she has the stuff of a dandy republican. The rich are rich because they deserve to be. She sees the universe as a place where virtue is rewarded, you see. And the poor, like the undeserving drudges in her dragon books, are poor because they are lazy. And with this sort of mindset, how can anyone find it a shocker that she doesn’t see folks with physical handicaps as people entitled to full human rights?

Her books are dimestore gothics written to appeal to the horseback-riding crowd. They sell, oh yes they sell. But so do the Twilight books and the slop masquerading as food at Applebee’s.

33 DWG { 07.27.10 at 4:47 am }

Laloca suggests we should just ignore any story we don’t like, but if that story proposes something I find morally evil as a positive then shouldn’t I take issue with it? Imagine a best seller that hypothesizes the reintroduction of slavery and portrays it as a good thing, wouldn’t you expect civil rights advocates to take issue with the book’s concept? Fighting disablism is the area where I’m a civil rights advocate, so The Ship Who Sang is precisely the kind of thing you should expect me to take issue with, particularly as I can then use it as a springboard to educate people about disability and disablism and why society needs to change. (Which is precisely what I was doing in the blog posting mentioned early in the discussion).

As a belated reply to Unicorn, we’ll have to agree to disagree on pretty much everything.

34 Cara { 07.31.10 at 6:37 pm }

Can we submit a chapter or a portion of a story?

35 laloca { 07.31.10 at 9:33 pm }

@dwg – you missed my main point, which was that i find debate about content to be legitimate, but debate about the existence of the work not to be. perhaps it was my own fault, for ending with “if it so offends you” (which in my mind is a far higher bar than “don’t like”) “don’t read it.”

in your example of the slavery book, it would probably be more useful to question why the book became a bestseller, than to get exercised about the book’s concept. not to say you shouldn’t do the latter, but figuring out the former would be more useful to work for social change.